Scott Morrison’s attempt to cut Labor’s grass almost ended in tears on Thursday morning.
The Prime Minister made an early morning visit to the Queanbeyan growth suburb of Googong to spruik $25,000 cash grants for residential construction.
The government’s $688 million HomeBuilder announcement doubled as a campaign event for the Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs in the Eden-Monaro by-election battle.
But it wasn’t just Thursday’s sub-zero temperatures that gave the assembled press pack with a chilly start to the day.
A bearded man braved the elements to interrupt the Prime Minister as he extolled the virtues of stimulating the building sector.
“Can everyone get off the grass please? Come on,” the exasperated Googonger said.
“Guys, I’ve just reseeded that.”
A sideways shuffle seemed to satisfy him.
Thumbs ups exchanged, Mr Morrison cranked back into gear, talking up tradies’ chances in a sector weathering the coronavirus storm.
Googong’s sea of Colorbond roofs is exactly the type of place the Liberals are trawling for votes ahead of the July 4 poll.
A victory would make it the first time for 100 years a government has won a seat from an opposition in a by-election.
The Coalition is reviving its pitch to so-called aspirational voters through the $688 million renovation and new house scheme.
The temporary program will provide $25,000 grants to eligible home buyers and renovators.
New house and land packages worth up to $750,000 and renovations worth $150,000 or more will be eligible.
On Thursday, Mr Morrison said the scheme would save jobs and help Australians “keep the dream alive”.
It came after Master Builders Australia predicted a 40 per cent decline in residential construction, with 450,000 jobs on the line in the next six months because of coronavirus.
“We were facing the valley of death towards hundreds of thousands of job losses,” chief executive Denita Wawn said.
But the Australian Council of Social Service said the cash handouts represented a wasted opportunity to deal with the backlog of urgent social housing repairs and the shortfall in social housing stock.
“There is no argument that the construction sector needs a shot in the arm, but this money will not go where it is most needed,” CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said.
She said Master Builders, construction unions and community groups all agreed there was a need for a national social housing construction program of about 30,000 homes.
“There is also dire need for repairs and renovations of existing social housing dwellings that workers could get started on next week,” Dr Goldie said.
“We could create even more jobs by installing solar and improving energy efficiency in low-income homes, which would cut energy bills for people and families, who will otherwise freeze through winter.”
Labor has also urged the government to fund social and affordable housing projects.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said it was unlikely the program would spark a rush of people taking out loans or spending cash on major works.
“There aren’t too many battlers out there who have a lazy $150,000,” he said on Thursday.
“That’s a pretty decent renovation to your bathroom or to your kitchen.”
Mr Morrison said state governments were building social housing in partnership with the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation.
“The federal government doesn’t have to do every single part of the process,” he said.
The government anticipates the package will support 140,000 direct construction jobs and a million workers in the wider residential building sector.
Mr Albanese rubbished the job-creation claims, arguing the scheme was restrictive and poorly targeted.
The grants are open to people earning less than $125,000 a year or $200,000 per couple.
They can’t be used on investment properties or to build swimming pools, tennis courts, outdoor spas and saunas, sheds or garages.
Work has to be done by a licensed builder, meaning owner-builders and DIY renovators miss out.
The program is demand-driven, but the price tag suggests the government expects about 27,500 people to take up the offer.